The East India Company evolved from an enterprise run by a group of City of London merchants, which in 1600 was granted a royal charter conferring the monopoly of English trade in the whole of Asia and the Pacific. The East India Company archives show the evolution of this commercial body into a hybrid sovereign power controlling territories with millions of people. The records start with a list of the first investors dated September 1599, chart the Company's history until the reorganisation of the Government of India in 1858, in the aftermath of the Indian Uprising, and end with the final dissolution of the Company in 1874.
About the collection
The East India Company records comprise the wide variety of documents needed to trade and govern overseas territories: correspondence, administrative minutes, records of civilian and military employees, legal documents, ships' journals, accounting ledgers, reports, statistical data, official publications, maps and plans.
Key milestones in the Company's history are documented:
- The unification of the rival Old and New East India Companies in 1709.
- The establishment of military supremacy over rival European trading companies and local rulers, culminating in 1757 in the seizure of control of the province of Bengal.
- The grant of diwani in 1765 by the Mughul Emperor which allowed the Company to harvest the revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, providing funds to bolster the Company's military presence in the sub-continent.
- Further territorial acquisitions in India during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
- The establishment in 1784 by the British Government of a Board of Control to supervise the Company.
- The Charter Act of 1813 which opened up British trade with India by ending the Company's commercial monopoly in the subcontinent.
- The Charter Act of 1833 which brought about the Company's complete withdrawal from commercial activity.
- The Indian Uprising of 1857-8.
- The Government of India Act of 1858 which transferred the Company's powers to the India Office, a department of state.
The East India Company records cover the full geographical sweep from St Helena and Africa to China and Japan, and they are also a vital source for British history. Councils and committees in overseas factories (trading posts), settlements and centres of government routinely sent copies of their own proceedings and minutes to London for reference, and these were retained alongside the records created at the Company's London headquarters. A vast archive accumulated at East India House. Commercial and political intelligence sent back to London shared information about the societies, cultures, and economies encountered by the Company's overseas servants.
Both the East India Company and the Board of Control made provision for the care and custody of their records. In 1860 however the India Office surveyed the East India Company's records and destroyed a large amount of material which it considered to be ephemeral, retaining only what it judged to be the important historical records. Apart from duplicate documents, the main losses in the destruction were papers concerning the East India Company's commercial operations and records of the Committees of the Court of Directors.
- IOR/B: The Minutes of the East India Company's Court of Directors recorded the business of the Company handled centrally in London 1599-1858.
- IOR/E: General Correspondence to and from the East India Company and the Baord of Commissioners for the Affairs of India with the Company's various settlements and Presidencies throughout Asia, government departments and European houses of Agency.
- IOR/G: The factory records - documents from the trading posts established by the East India Company across Asia.
- IOR/L/MAR: Journals and Logs from the ships chartered by the East India Company to trade with Asia.
What is available online?
There are a number of online resources relating to the East India Company, some of which are freely available everywhere and some which require a subscription when viewed outside the British Library.
Freely available resources:
- Digitised Manuscripts: includes records relating to Botany in British India.
- Qatar Digital Library: for records relating to the history and culture of the Persian Gulf and wider region.
- East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, is a searchable public portal of information on the global context of British country houses.
- The Untold Lives blog contains many fascinating stories connected with the East India Company.
Subscription based resources, which are freely available to access onsite at the British Library:
- Adam Matthew Digital: Their East India Company resource includes the Minutes of the Court of Directors and other record series relating to the administration and development of factories throughout the East.
- Find My Past's British in India Collection: over 2.4 million records of baptisms, marriages, burials, wills, pensions, military and civil career information.
What is available in our Reading Rooms?
The East India Company's records can be viewed in the Asian & African Studies (A&AS) Reading Room, and the catalogues are searchable online using Explore Archives and Manuscripts. There are also printed catalogues, guides to the collections and open access free reference books in the A&AS Reading Room. The reading room PCs give free access to a number of useful sites such as Adam Matthew Digital's East India Company, Find My Past, and Nineteenth Century Collections Online.
The India Office Records and Private Papers are the British Library's most extensive archives relating to the East India Company and the British Empire in India but there is also much complementary material in other British Library archival collections. The diaries of Richard Cocks, in charge of the Company's factory in Japan 1615-1622, and the correspondence of Marquess Wellesley with successive East India Company directors 1797-1841 are two such examples from the Additional Manuscripts Collection.
What is available in other organisations?
The UK National Archives holds complimentary material in their papers of Government Departments, and their online catalogue Discovery also includes records regarding East India Company Collections held in repositories all over England and Wales.
The National Archives of India holdings can be searched using their online portal and includes records relating to the East India Company period which remained in India.
The Dutch National Archives holds the records relating to the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
Tanap: the Archives of the VOC is a database that has compiled information relating to the VOC held in archives throughout the world.
Moir, Martin, A General Guide to the India Office Records (London: The British Library, 1988). This gives the administrative background of the East India Company and detailed descriptions of the different series within the records. It is best used alongside the online and printed catalogues.